Inflated relief a new goal for today

Mar 21, 2017 by

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Last year, Mennonite Central Committee declared its $42.2 million response since 2012 to war in Syria and Iraq the single largest crisis response in MCC history.

That would be true if a dollar’s value remained constant.

However, after adjusting for inflation, MCC’s assistance to victims of war seems to have peaked about 70 years ago, in an era when those victims included European Mennonites.

MCC staff acknowledge they made an accounting error last fall, and have been working to clear things up.

While it is hard to know precisely how much MCC spent in various responses to World War II, there are records of material aid and monetary relief expenditures sorted by country and year in John D. Unruh’s 1952 book In the Name of Christ: A History of the Mennonite Central Committee and Its Service, 1920-1951.

MCC canned meat reaches victims of World War II. — Mennonite Central Committee Archives

MCC canned meat reaches victims of World War II. — Mennonite Central Committee Archives

Unruh’s appendix indicates the value of donated materials distributed from 1941 to 1950 totaled about $8.3 million, mostly in the second half of the decade. Relief expenditures over the same period added up to nearly $2.6 million.

That’s a total of $10.9 million, or nearly $110 million in 2017.

Fifteen thousand tons of food and 1,700 tons of clothing were distributed. Refugees were resettled in Canada, Paraguay and other countries with assistance from the United Nations. Homes and buildings were built. Children were supported with orphanages, nutrition distributions, emergency lodging, health care and education.

These projects accounted for more than half of all MCC spending in the 1940s.

Defining what counts as World War II response can be debated. These calculations do not include domestic programs such as Civilian Public Service work for conscientious objectors. Nearly $3.2 million was spent by MCC on CPS from 1941 to 1949, which would be about $32.5 million today. Much of the lengthy Pax rebuilding program, which began in 1951, is also left out.

Regardless of what counts as World War II response and what doesn’t, the value is substantially higher than the response to the war in Syria and related refugee crises in neighboring Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq.

As of March 2, MCC had spent or allocated about $42.2 million in those four countries — about half in Syria — since 2012. This includes 66 shipments of material resources such as kits, blankets, canned meat and food valued at $7 million, along with contributions from MCC cash donations, external grants, Global Affairs Canada funds and the Canadian Foodgrains Bank, which carries much of the load, representing 46 percent of the $42.2 million.

MCC works with 36 partner organizations to provide food and cash assistance, household items and water, psycho-social aid and peace education, educational programs and training for vocations and agriculture, especially in Iraq.

A worker for Middle East Council of Churches delivers an MCC relief kit to Sosamma, 91, who left her home after a missile hit it in the summer of 2016. — Middle East Council of Churches

A worker for Middle East Council of Churches delivers an MCC relief kit to Sosamma, 91, who left her home after a missile hit it in the summer of 2016. — Middle East Council of Churches

The job is not done, and there is still time to help the Middle East response grow nearer to the European response of the 1940s.

“While the greater part of MCC history (1920-1939) pertains, with some exception, to brotherhood aid, it was only in recent years in connection with World War II that relief reached suffering fellow men in a score of countries around the world,” wrote Unruh of Mennonites slowly moving beyond helping mainly their own people. “In the immediate future, at least, this helping hand will not be shortened or be less open and generous.”

With the exception of some wealthy Dutch merchants in the 17th century, North American Anabaptists know wealth and leisure more intimately today than any point in the faith’s history. Today can be a new golden age in relief, development and peacemaking if we want to make it such.

Responsibility for the fact that the dollar value of MCC’s response in the Middle East today is less than half its World War II response lies not at MCC’s feet but at its donors’. Agencies can only give away what they are given.

MCC relief sales are the perfect opportunity to have our consumption and support those who are suffering at the same time. Guilt-free fried fare. One more antique tractor that you really do very much need. Another fine quilt you’ll come up with a great use for.

“Unless a tradition is perpetuated with living faith and devotion by each generation, it becomes dead and inoperative,” wrote Unruh in 1952. “The recent relief activities of Mennonites indicate that this tradition is not only spiritually alive but that it has grown and extended its vision and concern.

“Nevertheless, the question needs to be asked: Will it continue to live and grow? Will American Mennonites escape the temptations of economic prosperity, so deadly to spiritual life?”

Tim Huber is MWR associate editor.

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